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The Diversity of American English Dialects

Americans share a common language, but as in other countries, not all people speak it the same way. The U.S. has its own family of dialects that differ by region within its 3.8 million square miles.

People establish a dialect when they live together within set social or geographical boundaries over time. As they use language with limited outside influence, they develop characterizing words, grammar, syntax, and expressions. They also typically form a dialectical accent.

A dialect can even evolve so far as to become a different language. For example, the fifth century German invasion of England brought with it the Germanic Anglo Saxon dialect. As the invaders settled and became separated from their mother country, the dialect continued to fuse and form with surrounding speech until it no longer resembled German at all. Rather, it continued emerging into the English we now know.

The United States has many iterations of English, and different sources categorize them in separate ways. Several sources commonly identify fourteen main regional dialects in America. Estimates of subdialects within those primary groups can vary.

While we would like to explore them all, for our current discussion, we will group the main dialects into large, overarching regions— Southern, Northern, and Western American English—with just a few supporting examples.

American English Dialects: Southern

American Southern English is perhaps most recognized for its distinctive drawl with longer vowel pronunciations. Another regional distinction can be the dropping of the final r of a word before another word that begins with a vowel (e.g., greater idea is pronounced great-uh idea).

Southern English might also be identified by colloquialisms such as using done as an auxiliary verb (I done already reminded you about the yard work) and using been instead of have been in present perfect constructions (I been building this cabinet for about two weeks).

Two subdialects of Southern include patois such as Virginia Piedmont and Yat. Perhaps the most well-known subdialect, Virginia Piedmont is recognizable by its dropped r from words such as far (pronounced faa), the pronouncing of both pen and pin as pin, and the drawl that produces sounds such as PAY-et for pet.

Influenced by Louisiana French and indigenous to the New Orleans region, Yat draws its name from the colloquial expression where y’at? Those who speak in the dialect might be spotted by their pronunciation of the word curl as COY-ul.

American English Dialects: Northern

American Northern English includes dialects from New England (e.g., Boston, Rhode Island), New York and the Mid-Atlantic (e.g., Baltimore, Philadelphia), Inland Northern (e.g., Chicago, Detroit), and the U.S. Midland (Ohio, Nebraska, Missouri).

In Boston, as with Virginia Piedmont, you may hear the dropping of the r from words such as car (caa). Dissimilar to elsewhere in the U.S., depending on who’s speaking, father (FAW-thuh) and bother (baa-thuh) don’t always rhyme. You might also hear the word wicked in place of very and references to a tonic (TAWN-ic) for a soft drink.

In certain boroughs of New York (New Yawk), you might hear WAW-duh for water, gonna for going to, and awf for off.

In Philadelphia and surrounding areas, one may hear h-dropping as in YOO-men for human. The word water might also be pronounced as WOO-ter. Some Philadelphians are known to refer to the chocolate sprinkles on ice cream as jimmies as well.

Many Americans can identify Chicagoans by how they refer to their hometown: shi-CAW-go. Other Chicago-isms include gym shoes for sneakers, I got dibs for I have first access, da for the, and pop for soda. They also withdraw money from a cash station.

In St. Louis, you might hear for pronounced as far: What are you acting like that far?

American English Dialects: Western

Perhaps because it was settled last by European immigrants on different settlement routes, the American West is less distinct in its dialect than the South and the North.

With close to 40 million people (12 percent of the U.S. population), California has developed its own forms of English, but an identifying regional tongue is yet to be defined. Its most discernible pattern of speech may be the Valley Girl vernacular popularized in the 1980s. The lingo included using like as filler between words and expressions such as gnarly, awesome, totally, and gag me with a spoon.

Other subdialects include New Mexican, Utahan, and Wyomese English.

A Forever Rich Stew of Expression

In American English, the pot is large and the spices are many. Just a few other dialects you may hear as you travel our land might be Cajun, Latino and “Spanglish,” Pennsylvania Dutch, and Yeshiva. Each brings with it a color and a sound that remind us of the endless ways people use language to forge identities and leave creative imprints.

If the article or the existing discussions do not address a thought or question you have on the subject, please use the "Comment" box at the bottom of this page.

8 responses to “The Diversity of American English Dialects”

  1. Jeanine says:

    Is there a dialect that can explain the hard pronunciation of the “g” in words ending in “ing” such as “walking” – but the g at the end has a touch of the hard “G” sound you might hear in the word “goat”?

    I hear it from time to time in California. I’ve noticed it in friends who grew up in the LA area.

    Any insight?

    Thanks – love your blog!

    • We are glad you enjoy our exploration of American grammar and writing.

      We are not familiar with a classified dialect that includes the treatment you are referring to. American dialects include a vast range of subdialects; it’s possible your example is exclusive to one of them.

  2. John Reece says:

    I call it the “Law of Conservation of Consonants.” All of the “r”s that are lost when a Bostonian “pahks his cah in Havahd Yahd” show up in Texas where they have “oerl” wells. Actually, I consider myself very fortunate to have served 20 years in the US Navy, a microcosm of American society. I have been exposed to and learned to understand nearly every American dialect. The experience was part of my process of learning that our society’s diversity is a major strength.

  3. Marilyn Weir says:

    I always have found the topic of dialects fascinating — the subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, differences in how we pronounce words or words we use. I must comment on the reference to the word “jimmies” for sprinkles, commonly spread on ice cream. It was interesting to see jimmies associated with Philadelphia. Having come from the Boston area as well as all my family, jimmies was the only term I heard referring to what most people call sprinkles. In fact, I never heard the term sprinkles until I moved from New England for a time.

  4. Bruce A. Hayes says:

    You’ve stated “Many Americans can identify Chicagoans by how they refer to their hometown: shi-CAW-go.”

    Only the people who live in the locale know how to correctly pronounce the name of where they live. The rest of the world needs to accept their pronunciation. For an example, note the horribly offensive pronunciation of Terre Haute, Indiana when people read the name rather than hear the name.

    What I am asking is what is this other pronunciation of Chicago? Living in a near-by state, I am unfamiliar with how it is incorrectly pronounced.

  5. Deb Carlen says:

    Is this possibly also a book? If yes, tell me how to buy a zillion copies.
    And…I don’t have an Atlanta accent. It’s just the way you’re listening.

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